Lisa Baron's Salacious Memoir
Michelle Goldberg on why Baron's craven cynicism eclipses anything dishy the story could hope to offer.
Life of the Party: A Political Press Tart Bares All, the new memoir by former GOP PR aide Lisa Baron, begins on a note both intriguing and revolting. "When people find out that I worked for Ralph Reed during the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, they always ask the same thing: Was it true Ralph told voters that Senator John McCain fathered a black child?" she writes. "And my answer is always the same, 'How would I know? I was in a Greenville hotel room giving Ari Fleischer a blow job.'"
Given this opening, one might expect that Baron's book, which comes out later this month, will be a gossipy tell-all packed with Republican secrets. It's timing seems perfect, given that the pace of sex scandals has lately picked up faster than that of natural disasters. In fact, though, there's not all that much dirt here. We do learn that Ralph Reed set Baron up with Jack Abramoff crony Adam Kidan—here called Jason, but very thinly disguised—and that, under the pretext of having to make a business call, he lured her to his hotel room on the first date, then stripped naked and lunged at her. More significantly, there are hints that it really was Reed who spread miscegenation rumors about McCain—at one point, he fumes, "If John McCain thinks I did a number of him in South Carolina, he hasn't seen anything yet!"
Overall, though, most of the exposure here is of Baron herself. Yet that exposure is actually quite a bit more damning than she seems to realize, which makes the book strangely fascinating. A pro-choice, pro-gay Jewish woman who revels in her "trash-talking, booze-swilling, foul-mouth, fornicating" ways even as she spins for the family values crowd, Baron seems to see herself as a loveably insouciant lush, a right-wing Chelsea Handler. She doesn't seem to have the slightest idea how ugly her self-portrait really is.
As a liberal, I've often wondered about the motivations of Republicans who work on behalf of a social agenda that they have no intention of abiding by in their own lives. Why would a hard-partying socially liberal woman devote herself to electing men like Reed, or like Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss? The answer, it turns out, is distressingly simple. Because she's kind of a terrible person.
Okay, that may be going too far. Baron is often quite funny, and would probably be amusing to go drinking with. Still, I doubt the most jaded critic of our political class could imagine a character quite so craven and cynical. Here, laid bare, is the soul of an unrepentant, avaricious hack, a person with lots of ambition but few ideals and even less self-awareness. If it were a satire, it would be brilliant.
Finishing the book, I still wasn't sure exactly why Baron was a Republican at all. She doesn't seem to have much ideological ardor, writing at one point, "It always struck me as bizarre that people would ever choose to show up for a political rally."
Her real passion is for cocktails and designer clothes—she drops brand names like a cut-rate Bret Easton Ellis. When she does express political preferences, they're strictly self-serving. "Right or wrong, I knew that it would be near impossible for Roe v. Wade to be overturned," she writes. "But higher taxes would impale my paycheck, tomorrow, unless the right people are in office."
Thinking there must have been something deeper at work, I spoke to Baron by phone in Atlanta, where she now lives and works as a freelance writer. It turns out that besides money, she also cares about Israel—or, more specifically, the Israeli right. "Evangelicals believe strongly in the state of Israel, and I can't say that for all Democrats," she says. "That's a very, very big issue for me. I vote primarily on that issue."
One doesn't see this side of her in the book, which is unfortunate, since it would illuminate the perversity of the Zionist alliance between hawkish Jews and the Christian right. Instead, Baron depicts herself as a young woman desperate for political access for its own sake. She hooks up with Reed because, having gone through a few losing Republican campaigns, she thinks she can go far riding his coattails.
Above all, Baron nurtures the rather tragic dream of becoming White House Press Secretary—there's a long reverie about the designer outfits she'd wear while speaking to the nation. She aspires—literally—to one day sit next to Thomas Friedman at a dinner party. Reed may have built his career pushing policies she opposes, but through him, she gains access to the dazzling world of cable TV bookers. "I was Ralph Reed's right-hand woman, and I loved that as well as traveling first class, Chris Matthews' and Larry King's producers were calling me, wanting to set up interviews with Ralph," she writes. It's kind of amazing to realize that people like this actually exist.
In classic mean-girl style, Baron has all sorts of insults for other women, and seems to have no idea how they reflect on her. Her White House press secretary fantasy, she writes, "was made extra-delicious when I envisioned myself providing Republican women an alternative to the angry, long-haired, wild-eyed Ann Coulters of the world—she always looks as though she's just been dropped off from the night before." It's hard, of course, to get too worked up about anyone's cattiness towards Coulter, but Baron is pretty consistently vicious. Christine Whitman, who she worked for in 1997, is "a total fucking bitch" and "like the UN, only bracketed by a C and a T." For all I know, Whitman may in fact be awful. Baron, though, is the one who comes off seeming nasty.
If all this were the setup for a coming-of-age story in which Important Lessons Are Learned, it would be forgivable. But the only lesson Baron gleans from her sojourn among the religious right is that coattails are not a reliable means of transportation. When Reed gets caught up in the Abramoff scandal, she's overcome with disappointment—not because he was involved in something unethical, but because he jeopardized her career. "I depended on him to get me where I wanted to be, and he depended on me to get him where he wanted to be," she told me. "And I feel like he dropped the ball." The fact that this is the betrayal that concerns her is immensely telling about the morality of a certain kind of conservative political operative. More so, in fact, than any number of salacious carnal details.